Professor Zine Magubane
Associate Professor, Boston College
Title: The Interconnected Histories of South African and American Sociology: Knowledge in the Service of Colonial Violence
South African sociology is a colonial discipline. As such, it was not born out of a desire to add to the general store of knowledge about human nature and social relations. Rather, its raison d’être was to produce knowledge in the service of apartheid. Therefore, the matrix of ideas and understandings that coalesced around the concept of ‘culture’ in South African sociology cannot readily be separated from the issue of cultural violence. Indeed, to review the history of South African sociology is to review the history of an idea—culture—deployed in the service of colonial violence. The ideas about culture that were the bedrock of the South African apartheid policy of ‘separate development’ took the shape that they did because of the strength of the connection between ‘scientific sociology’ in South Africa and the apartheid regime. South African sociology was not, however, a sui generis phenomenon. As an imperial episteme it traced its roots and borrowed many of its concepts about culture from American sociology, which was, itself, shaped primarily to meet the ideological needs of the post-Civil War ‘New South’. The concept of ‘cultural difference’ in American sociology, which evolved out of the practical needs of transforming industrial and agrarian labor relations in the period following emancipation, captured the hearts and minds of the first generation of South African sociologists. The goal of this essay, therefore, is twofold. First, to provide a genealogy of American sociology that explains how a new interpretive framework was born which held that: cultures are bounded units; cultures emerge partially out of the biological and partly out of the social; cultures put their stamp on the individual and gave them an identity; and cultures prepared different people for different tasks within a hierarchically ordered political economy. Second, to show how that interpretive framework was taken up by the first generation of South African sociologists who hoped to bolster their own claims to legitimacy by demonstrating how much they had learned from American sociologists.
Thursday, March 18, 2021